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How Do You Handle Difficult Situations with Students?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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"So do you have a problem with me?" the student asked.

"Yes I do." I testily answered. "You need to be quiet and listen to the teacher!"

"What do you care? Just keep fixing that computer!" replied the student.

Unfortunately, I was only a visitor in the classroom that day (there to fix the computer). The above exchange occurred when I just couldn't stand it any longer and turned and looked for the student who was making all that noise while the teacher was trying to teach high school biology.

I must have had an angry look on my face when I turned to look, and that single look got a nasty reaction. It didn't get any better between that student and me. But it did get me thinking: What would I have done differently to diffuse the situation if I were the teacher?

I'm not going to talk about the sad state of society where students can feel comfortable being rude to adults, nor will I discuss any specifics about the student. I am also not going to address that the teacher seemed oblivious to what was going on between the student and this visitor. (My reason for not tackling any of those topics? If we are to fix education, we have to stop blaming and making excuses. We just need to fix it starting with ourselves!)

As I mentioned above, my facial expression may have cued the response. Perhaps when I looked in a perturbed fashion at this student it was viewed as a challenge. I wonder if it would have been any different if I had kept my face passive. Probably. But, after all, I communicated what I really wanted to communicate. With just my look, I told this student that I was displeased.

Then I thought, what could I have said that would have made things better? I know that humor is the best thing to deflect angry situations, but I was peeved. I wish I had recalled in that moment all the research that shows when you are irritated, your brain basically shuts off.

Maybe I should have said with a wry smile, "I'm sorry, the teacher is speaking so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying." Or perhaps I could have stated, "Nope, I am just sitting here listening to you enjoying the Kreb cycle." If I had had my wits about me I could have -- and probably should have -- stood up and introduced myself to that student: "Oh, I'm sorry, we have not been properly introduced. I am the all powerful and wise adult. And you are?" All of these would have either made the student laugh or at least embarrassed the student enough to keep the student quiet. They would have had a more desirous outcome than what I did say.

Although I'm in classrooms daily, I typically do not have the pressure of getting students to do what they do not want to do. However, something I do know for certain: By allowing negative student behaviors to continue, teachers are not doing anyone a favor. We have to do something.

That is why I felt compelled to do something, so I gave the student "the look," and my authority as an adult was then challenged. Then, wisely or not, I decided to assert that authority. Both of us lost our dignity that day. And I admit I played my part in this.

I am curious to know: What would you have done in this situation? Please also share successful strategies for diffusing unnecessary conflicts. We are all in this together. I look forward to your suggestions and ideas.

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Jessica L's picture

It is so difficult to be scolded by someone who barely knows you. That student probably felt like he was being attacked and he lashed out in return. As educators, or any responsible adult, we find it difficult to not do or say anything when we see a child being disrespectful, but we have to be aware if we have the authority to discipline someone in certain cases.
If we give a kid a dirty look, he won't think that the 'look' is meant for his behavior, but rather for him as a person.
I think that a better alternative would have been to talk to the teacher after the class. The teacher would either appreciate your insight, and try to take the appropriate measures in dealing with the student, or probably ignore it (which may have been the teacher's choice so far, judging by the student's behavior).
Overall, the most important thing is to make sure that you try to never lose control. Once that happens, it's very difficult to remedy the situation.

Sabrina Morales's picture
Sabrina Morales
Pre-K teacher from Clarkesville, GA

I have been in your shoes before. I teach Pre-K in a Head Start facility. With most of our children, we gladly accept an outsider's help with our most disruptive children because a new face and voice may actually get the child's attention. However, sometimes the outsider's help only escalates the problem. In our school, we have an open door policy in which we welcome all help. Background information on a student may be helpful and the teacher's preferences as well but if you are in a large school it may not be possible to know everything. If I were the teacher in your situation I would have been grateful for your assistance even when it did not actually help.

Natalie's picture

A teacher always appreciates an outsiders opinion, in any situation. I understand your frustrations because I feel the same way about children who think they can say whatever they want to adults and their peers. I think children are losing the value of education and by not valuing their education they are becoming disrespectful to the teachers and administration. I know we need to quit blaming others and fix the problems; however, we also need to find a way to reach out to parents and educate them on teaching values and respect in the home.

angie spencer's picture

Part of our job (teachers) is handling classroom management. As a visitor in the class, I am not sure if it was your job to intervene. I think a whisper to the child's would have been appropriate. Certain outburst just fuel the fire.
I believe student behavior is reflection on parental influences. When there is lack of respect for teachers, or adults there will be discipline problems. How does the student response to his parents? This behavior can seem from home, or self-esteem. In order to handle properly, background information on the child is necessary.

Melissa's picture

I agree 100% that it is not fair to everyone else in the classroom when a students acts in a way that is not appropriate. Most of the time, you can handle the situation immediately and it doesn't happen again. However, there are students who do not care who they are disturbing or who the adult is. These students are going to be disruptive no matter what. As a teacher, I have had to develop strategies for each individual student so that we can prevent these behaviors from happening. For most of my students with behavior problems, I can give them a "look" and they know that I mean business and they better stop. For some that is not enough. I have a system where students in my classroom have a sticky note taped to their desk. Any time that I have to walk by and give them a tally mark means that they are doing something that they should not be doing. With tally marks, the students loose privileges and some students have to call home and tell their parent why they are in trouble.

I believe that every student has the opportunity to learn. When there are others in the classroom who make this difficult it is not fair. Something has to be done by the classroom teacher, parents, and administrators for these problems to become controllable.

Laura P.'s picture

I agree. Some sort of discipline plan and strategies need to be used and enforced in a classroom in order to maintain order. Maybe this teacher was using a different system of discipline to maintain order. Melissa, I like your strategies because they are simple, take little time, and don't take away from instruction. Also, I know some teachers who simply write students names down on a list and speak with them after class. This way they do not take away from instructional time. Although, if the disruptive student is bothering other students, then maybe they should handle it differently. We will not know what the teacher was doing without speaking to him/her ourselves. Thank you for the thought provoking insight.

Joyce Babcock's picture

Hello Ben,
I total understand your situation. I am a substitute teacher and I often find myself in similar situations. I have to bite my tongue many times. Perhaps some of the following will help you out the next time. I do not often advise this but maybe next time you should just ignore the students or pretend that you have a hearing problem. I often say that I'm sorry I couldn't hear you I did not have my hearing aid turned up. Then talk to the teacher afterwards.
We can control our words but sometimes it is the body language that gets us in trouble. I believe you said you gave "the look". If the student was watching you and notice you were already agitated he may have just tried to make you madder. Which by your post this is exactly what the student accomplished. I usually try to just smile, not smirk, smile.
Humor is great, but some students see this as a challenge. Oh so the computer repair man thinks he is funny and the battle continues.
It is very difficult to deal with rude and disruptive students. When you approach the teacher just let her know what happened and let her handle the situation. However, remember how you would feel if another repair man told you how to do your job.
You have my best wishes for the next time you are caught in a "difficult situation."

Michele J.'s picture

Wow! That situation should have never happened. There was obviously a breakdown in discipline, respect of authority, and classroom rules. I think of all of my students as my children. Although my own children are not perfect, and they do act like teenagers sometimes, they know their place and they know that disrespect of any kind is unacceptable in our home. Therefore, to disrespect anyone outside of our home is double trouble.

I follow the same approach with my students. I model respect, I treat the students as I would want to be treated, but I am also fair and consistent. I feel as if they respect this approach and I usually do not have discipline problems. When a guest or substitute teacher comes in, we discuss appropriate expectations and I keep things very positive saying things like I know they won't let me down and the guest is going to say our class was the best they ever had. My students always love to live up to that challenge.

I think the other thing that helps with classroom behavior is a supportive administration team. If I should have a discipline problem that I can't handle, I can immediately have the child removed from the classroom, and I know it will be handled in the office.

I once taught in a middle school that had an awesome discipline procedure. Each teacher had a special card that they kept in their desk. If a child was being disruptive, the teacher asked a reliable student to take the card to the office. A few minutes later, a team of three or four male teachers including the assistant principal and those who had planning period, would show up at the door and remove the student. I only had to do this once, and the reaction on not only the child's face, but the rest of the students was priceless. Four men showed up at my door, the assistant principal asked me who the problem was, the child was asked to get his books, and then was escorted out of the classroom. My classroom was silent the rest of the period.

Every school has a discipline policy, but the trick is to follow it in order for it to be effective.

Corliss Henry's picture

As educators there is a constent struggle between saying something to a student that is not yours vs stepping on the toes of the adults in charges. What I try to do is follow this process and then go from there. The first thing I do is take 10 deep breathes before I speak this give me a chance to gather my thoughts and the student a chance to settle down and docus on me. Next I put my hands in my pockets so that I'm not showing any signs of anger or disapproval, Finally I calmly ask the student if there is a problem and if I can help. These things combined should show the student that you are not trying to embrass or belittle them and at the same time you are showing concern and trying to make a connection to the student. I hope this helps.

Nikki's picture

Hi Ben!
I love the fact that you are not making excuses for your actions just as you mentioned to Gail. It is easy to let our emotions get the best of us and take control of our behaviors. I too have let my emotions take control as I also responded to a student's behavior without thinking. We did so because as you previously said, the brain tends to shut down in stressful situations. However, we all know that what happened is in the past and you cannot go back in time and change the way you responded. Remain positive in yourself and look at this experience as one of great learning. Now if there ever comes a time where you are faced with this situation again, you will know how to react. Remember, you were a guest in this classroom and my guess is that this teacher was allowing this behavior to occur because it typically does so daily. She was probably ignoring it and by saying something to the student, the situation just escalated. Once again, it was all a learning experience for you and you know exactly what to do if there ever is a next time!

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